New Atheism, Christianity, and Identity

Someone re-tweeted this into my timeline today:

This is a test. If you don't believe in god, share/comment/like this image. If you do believe in god, pray that not one single person likes or shares this image. Let's see who wins.“This is a test. If you don’t believe in God, share/comment/like this image. If you do believe in God, pray that not one single person likes or shares this image. Let’s see who wins.”

Now, there are a few obvious issues here, such as God not necessarily answering our prayers in the way we expect, the exhortation to waste a rich and deep prayer life on a petty contest, the notion that atheists would definitely believe in God if the image hadn’t been shared (I wonder if any of them did, between the posting and first re-tweeting?), and the idea that if lots of people agree with you, you must be right. It’s all a bit tiresome. We’ve all seen it before.

But the thing that struck me about it, and about the person who re-tweeted it into my timeline, is this: They have an incredible amount of their self-worth invested in being smarter/cleverer/more rational than people of faith. I know not all atheists are like this, but the sort that make images like the one above? Really want to think themselves, and to be thought of by others, as clever.

Now, I’m pretty smart, and it’s a part of my identity, the way grey-blue eyes and being tall are part of who I am. But I don’t need to feel I’m smarter than others to feel good about myself. I don’t go out of my way to cultivate my identity as a Clever Person. I’m occasionally frustrated with people who are much less intelligent than I am, I occasionally meet people who are so much smarter than I am that I don’t know what hit me, I am mostly just grateful that my intellect makes many things in life easier for me than they would otherwise be.

Far more important to me is my identity as a Christian — a “little Christ”. By birth I am God’s child; by baptism I am part of the church, the Body of Christ. And that membership, that identity, that dying-to-self, means answering Christ’s demands on my life. And so, these are the criteria for any kind of “success”:

  • Do I love God?
  • Do I love my neighbour as myself?
  • Do I feed the hungry?
  • Do I give shelter to the homeless?
  • Do I give water to the thirsty?
  • Do I set the prisoner free?
  • Do I heal the sick?
  • Do I comfort those who mourn?

Being clever doesn’t come into it. There is no commandment to be smarter than your neighbour. I don’t have to reject my cleverness or hide it, but my success or lack of same in answering Christ’s call on my life is not based on how smart I am. Ever.

The list of criteria to measure success at being a Christian is pretty daunting, and on a strictly practical level I fail at most of them, most days. Why this is not actually impossible, why my failure does not mean I am miserably damned, is a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, I know what I’d rather base my identity in.

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